Symbols can express something that is important to people of faith. Twenty years ago I had the opportunity to go to Turkey and visit the city of Ephesus. There you will find carved in the stone a circle divided into eight pieces. It is one of the earliest Christian symbols using the Greek letters IX⍬YE as a testimony of their faith in Christ representing: Jesus Christ God Son Savior.
Images and symbols continue to have an important place in houses of worship today. I was struck by this while attending one of the Tabernacle Summer Concert events at the Logan 1st Ward building. In the chapel there is
a large painting depicting a pioneer scene with a woman and her child in the forefront with a wagon and other figures in the background. I wondered what this image would have symbolized for those in the early 1900’s when the building was constructed.
Certainly it reminded the worshiper of the hardships that their forefathers had encountered, but there is something more. The placement of the painting front and center in the chapel signifies how this was important to their identity as a people. Not as an object of worship, but as a reminder of a shared sacrifice and history.
Other churches in our valley also have intentional symbolism within them. For example, if you visit St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Hyde Park, you will be struck by the crucifix on the sanctuary wall. The image of Christ on the cross is a visible reminder to the congregants of the sacrifice that Christ made for their sins. Catholic.org says that, “The crucifix symbolizes our complete obedience to God.” Meaning can be given to the symbol beyond the symbol itself.
This was true in the case of the symbols in the church that I grew up in. Like in other churches, there were stained glass windows featuring images of the stories of Christ. However, the dominating image was a large cross formed out of two fish with a large X in the middle. It represented something more than artistic license, it had a message.
The fish forming the cross represented the two fish Jesus used to feed the 5,000. Luke 9 says that the disciples suggested for Jesus to send the people home since they had no food to feed them. But Jesus counters saying “You feed them.” To which they say, “But we have only five loaves of bread and two fish.” Jesus then instructs the crowd sit down, and taking the five loaves, he breaks them and gives the bread and fish to the disciples to distribute to the people. And, “They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftovers!” (Luke 9:17)
The two fish made into the cross reminds the observer not only of Jesus’ miracle but also of how Jesus came to die for us on the cross. The X in the center of the cross, is the Greek letter 'chi' that is used to represent Christ. Hence, contrary to what you may have heard, Xmas doesn’t mean that Christ has been taken out of Christmas, but rather the X is shorthand for Christ.
Sometimes the use of symbols in places of worship are more subtle. For example, some churches like the one I grew up in, have two pulpits with one higher than the other. The gospel message was preached from the higher pulpit to symbolically testify of the preeminence of the preaching of the Word of God. Modern churches will often use banners to symbolically remind worshippers of what is important to them. Our church has banners for the 5 Solas of the Christian faith (Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, and Glory to God Alone) as a witness to how we think and live in this world.
However, symbolism is not always clear to the outsider. The church of my youth had the choir in the balcony behind the congregation rather than in the front. It symbolizes that they were part of the congregation not a focal point of the worship service. Most missed the symbolism.
Symbols will serve as physical reminders of what is important to worshippers. When you visit your place of worship, consider what the images and symbols are pointing to. Are they a reminder of your spiritual heritage or of the works of Christ? Do they encourage your worship of Christ or hinder it? Most importantly, do they remind you of the eternal hope that Christ brings?